The devil’s lassi

fire fighter wearing black and yellow uniform pointing for something

‘The Devil’s Milkshake’, Tarence Ray in The Baffler, February 23, 2023:

You’ve seen it before. An industrial disaster poisons a town’s food or water supply. Residents get angry. Public officials try to dispel that anger through a public act of self-sacrifice, of reassurance. They convene a press conference, whereupon some hapless courtier brings forth a chalice of the supposedly poisoned material. And then, in front of God and the television cameras, the public official imbibes. …

Years ago, I surveyed the literature looking for a name or term to describe this phenomenon of consuming potentially tainted materials. After all, it seemed to be increasing in frequency, and I’d even started witnessing it at the level of local politics. But if there was a name, I couldn’t find it. So I gave it one: the Devil’s Milkshake. …

I don’t think there have been public officials in India who have rushed to drink possibly contaminated water to convince their constituents that it is safe to consume, but I could well be wrong. All that comes to mind is ministers flogging ‘Ayurvedic’ cures* for COVID-19, but when they get COVID-19 and the time comes to imbibe the concoctions, they’re rushed instead to the local AIIMS to be treated by the wonders of “western medicine” at public expense.

One more thing also comes to mind: ‘Devil’s Milkshake’ practices in the US are reminiscent of rationalists’ gimmicks in India to consume food en masse in public during a solar eclipse, apparently to dispel superstitious beliefs (largely among Hindus) that doing so during an eclipse could have ill effects on the body. I don’t know if they have ever succeeded in changing minds if only because their actions have been completely devoid of empathy, and because they seem to believe (erroneously) that whatever knowledge underlies the belief is fragile, inelastic, and disorganised enough to be overturned by a simple, one-time demonstration. As such, the superstitious people in my extended circles have only ever been amused by such eclipse-time events – speaking to one more thing Ray wrote vis-à-vis ‘Devil’s Milkshake’ stunts:

The Devil’s Milkshake can also be an effective way for a public official to shirk any commitment to doing something about the conditions that gave rise to the disaster in the first place.

If the disaster is bad, specifically disempowering, knowledge, then both the rationalists (the ones on TV as well as the many others who claim science offers the “one true way” to understand the world) and the ministers are doing nothing to plug the fount of such knowledge in the first place; one mocks while the other… also mocks. They are both guilty of moving the devil’s merch, which would be fair if they didn’t seem themselves as participants in (what could have been) a deliberative democracy as much as overlords overseeing a contemptible populace:

Its recent proliferation must be seen as proof of a ruling class desperate to uphold the illusion of democracy. It is the last gasp of a dying order, drinking and eating its way to the grave, restrained or unwilling to fix anything, and thus doomed to play act a fantasy before klieg lights and newscasters. The dizzying amount of Devil’s Milkshake footage issuing from East Palestine [the site of the ongoing socio-environmental disaster in Ohio] only proves their desperation: these people could not be more unlike you. In fact, the only thing you have left in common with them is the fact that they, too, still have to eat food and drink water to stay alive. That’s it. The Devil’s Milkshake is a measure of the gaping chasm between you and them.

* Wherever I’ve used the term ‘Ayurveda’, I’ve meant the ‘Ayurveda’ that the BJP government and its votaries, including Baba Ramdev, have peddled, and not the Ayurveda that originated in ancient India, quite simply because most of us don’t know what the latter even looks like or says.

About Me

I’m a science editor and writer in India, interested in high-energy and condensed-matter physics, research misconduct, pseudoscience, science’s relationship with society, epic fantasy, open source/access/knowledge systems, H.R. Giger’s art, Goundamani’s comedy, Factorio, and most things that require a lot of time to get the hang of.